Monday, August 4, 2014

Arts, Crafts, and Mechanization

I don’t mean to offend any machinists, craftsmen, artists, hobbyists, or anyone else out there. Or to say that you can’t combine any or all of the catagories.  This is just a ramble of thoughts.

Most of the time I don’t consider myself to be an artist, or really even a craftsman, despite making knives, bows, bowls, pens, and a variety of other things.  I am a hobbyist or something like that.  I don’t focus on one particular topic, get bored easily with doing the same or even similar craft work, and therefore, rarely spend enough time on a particular craft to get very good at it.  I often feel like my first attempts at something are the best because I haven’t gotten bored with the particular task.  In my mind, Craftsmen are those who take the time to get better and better at a particular craft.  So what are artists? I think they are people who put a great deal of themselves into their work no matter the medium.

So what is my point today? I see a lot of mechanization in the field of knife making.  And those products tend to be cleaner and more precise than “handcrafted work”, and most importantly – repeatable as long as the materials and tools hold out.  I can’t do that as a hobby craftsman.  I can make something that looks pretty similar, but it won’t be the same. The hammer doesn’t fall in the same place, the grinder (or sandpaper) marks are different, the gluing shifted slightly, I  burned my finger, the heat treat was 25 degrees different.  I am not a machine.  So which is better? 


There is something to be said about the ability to repeatably make an item, once you get the design and set up out of the way (something that isn’t as easily done as said), and have the process for finishing put together, pieces and parts “just” need to be assembled (see children’s toy assembly for a simple vertion of “just”) and finished, not necessarily in that order.  Mistakes may happen, but generally, the process is repeatable.  Repeatability doesn’t mean that it isn’t art! But the art may be in the design, and assembly and finishing rather than in the machining. I don’t know, maybe there is a grey area.

There is also something to be said about raw crafting – and don’t get me wrong, I use plenty of tools, otherwise my hands would be burned bloody stumps and I still wouldn’t have a product. But at the same time, I rarely measure anything, everything is “by eye”, or until it feels right, or until it fits.  Yes, there is some rough marking of important points, but either I or my machines aren’t that precise most of the time.  I have – rarely – attempted to repeat a project, or make two of something, but inevitably, they are different.  I don’t know if the unrepeatability of my work (by me at least) makes them more artistic.  They generally don’t have the same level of fit and finish as a machined piece, and overall may not be the same “quality” but are they more because they are unique?  Perfect in their imperfection? 

Which would you rather have as a tool? Or as an object to set on your shelf and look at?  Does it make a difference?  Sometimes?  If I make a bowl on my lathe – for me a moderately repeatable task,  although there are likely to be slight variations in shape and size and thickness and symmetry.  I would still rather have that hand turned bowl on my shelf rather than a machine turned piece identical (except for the piece of wood) in all dimensions to 50 or a thousand others.  But a tool? A knife? Yes, there are machined knives that are beautiful, but if there are a thousand of them are they as beautiful? Why not? At the same time, the fit and finish and precision, and the ability to tweak the process to make them even better in future iterations, has a great deal of appeal.

If you want the “best” of something, the ability to tweak the design is key. Craftsmen can only achieve it over a great deal of time and practice (Apprentice, journeyman, master), and although there are certainly different skill levels of machinists also, specifications can be transmitted from one to another and the results should be pretty close. 

I’m sure that any Japanese swordsmith would cringe at the plethora of very functional machined katana out there, but is the hand forged, hand polished, version that much functionally better, or even more beautiful? What if you consider that one takes 10 or more times as much time to make?

I’m a bit jealous of the mechanized craftsmen, and I still want a power hammer, but I don’t think that I will stop being a hobby craftsman for now.